A large Samoan lady sat between
me and the doctor's surgery.
"She must be the Women's Committee representative," Steve
whispered, "We'll have to win her around to get anywhere
near a doctor." I looked down a long airy corridor, lined
with Samoan people queuing for treatment. Children lay dozing
in their parents' arms, women with bandaged feet tried to
get shelter from the hot morning sun, and the men read their
papers, or chatted lazily. It was going to be a long wait.
Steve straightened his lavalava and rammed his hat more
firmly on his head.
"Talofa, talofa, you are looking wonderful today," he said
in English, grabbing the lady by the hand. She smiled broadly.
"Are you Women's Committee?" Steve asked. The woman raised
an eyebrow in affirmation. "Can we see a doctor?" She twitched
a little. "A nurse?" Steve tried again after another almost
imperceptible twitch. "Is there a pharmacist in the building?"
One of the men who had been staring into space suddenly
launched into a torrent of Samoan, and everyone in the queue
looked pointedly at us and laughed. Within seconds Steve
had answered back in equally loud Samoan. There was a sudden
silence and people shuffled in their seats, heads down looking
embarrassed. Steve grinned triumphantly and whispered an
explanation. "That was dead funny. They thought we were
a palagi husband and wife and assumed we couldn't understand
their comments. That guy there was very rude about the foreigner
with the weird beard who gave you a fat belly."
"What did you say back?" I asked, intrigued.
"I told him I'm your house slave not your husband," said
Steve, stroking his beard. "They are all suitably mortified."
The incident got us promoted as
far as the chemist's counter. But we still had to get past
a pregnant receptionist to speak to the pharmacist.
"Talofa, talofa, How are you today?" Steve turned on the
charm offensive. "Don't tell me you are pregnant?" he said,
sounding disappointed that he hadn't been included in her
life plans. "How many children have you got?" he asked.
"None yet," she replied.
"And how many husbands?" Steve asked with an innocent smile.
His smile was returned as she giggled happily. He leaned
in close to her, "Can you
put the right medicine into this bottle for us?" She took
the bottle away, then returned to the counter smiling. "We
can get some medicine in that bottle?" Steve checked. The
receptionist nodded at him. "Today?" he questioned. She
laughed again and went back to some paperwork.
Steve took me to one side. "They're notorious for leaving
you waiting around," he briefed me. "If you were here on
your own they'd probably take the bottle, allow you to wait
all day for it, then when you asked for it back at four
o clock, they'd say the pharmacist has gone home and you
need to come back tomorrow. But don't worry, I'll keep the
pressure up. By the way, if you can ever make them laugh,
then do. They love a joke the Samoans." The receptionist
looked our way, "Shall we go dancing tonight?" Steve asked
her, "and we'll take the medicine with us eh?" The receptionist
called to someone in another room and a barrel like lady
with thick black hair came over to see us.
"Talofa, talofa, it's great to see
you," Steve pumped the woman's hand. "You are the pharmacist?
Can we get some medicine for this lady's child?"
The woman narrowed her eyes. "You need to see a doctor?"
"No, no," Steve rushed in, "we just need a repeat prescription.
He has the same condition that his brother had last week
and needs the same antibiotic. Can we get it soon, because
I expect you'll be going off in a few minutes to get ready
for your party tonight." The barrel wheezed with laughter
and disappeared. "If they insist we see a doctor as well,
we'll be here for days." Steve sighed.
She returned with our bottle; it was full of orange syrup,
identical to the medicine we had been given for Matthew.
"You are an angel," said Steve, pressing something into
her hands, "and this is my small gift for your party tonight."
He then shook the hand of the receptionist, "tai lava. This
is for your beer." The receptionist looked at the tala that
had exchanged hands, then threw her head back and laughed.
"You won't be having a beer tonight?" Steve asked in mock
surprise, knowing that pregnant Samoan women rarely drink
alcohol. He then thrust the medicine bottle into my hands.
"Just give a few tala to the women's committee rep and then
we're outa here," he said, grinning widely at the queue
of people he had embarrassed earlier, none of whom had moved
an inch further towards the surgery. I thanked Steve, deeply
grateful to have had a guide with me. I would never have
dreamed up bribery or flattery for my route through the
Samoan National Health Service. Instead I would have waited
in line all day like a tourist, with everyone making rude
comments about the size of my stomach.
We returned to the beach resort
and Cameron rushed to greet me, "have you got my medicine
Mummy?" His excitement was heartbreaking, as his scabbed
faced lit up at the prospect of a cure. "It's orange, it's
orange. Oh thank you Mummy. Look Daddy, I got orange medicine.
Mummy go'ed to the doctor for me." I sat down at the bar
and ordered a stiff orange juice. The last few days had
been hard for me as I watched the three men in my life turn
into lepers. And while Matthew had finished his course of
antibiotics and was definitely on the mend, Cameron's little
body was covered in sores as the impetigo left his brother's
body and took hold of him. Unable to relieve his pain in
case I contracted the bacteria myself and jeopardised the
pregnancy, I had to stand by and watch while Stuart bathed
his son's sores and Cameron writhed with pain. It was a
horrible position for a mother to be in. There were several
times I wondered aloud whether we should just get ourselves
on a plane back home. I even made a secret phone call to
air New Zealand only to discover there were no seats out
of here until our scheduled flight. In any case, as Stuart
pointed out on more than one occasion, they could just as
easily have contracted impetigo back home. But stuck for
now on the island of Savai'i, the antibiotics that had cured
Matthew so effectively were our best hope until we could
get Cameron over to the private hospital on the other island.
"Look, look I got orange medicine," Cameron was dancing
around in the pyjama top he had been wearing for days. It
was the only top he possessed with long sleeves. We had
attempted to buy another, but it was impossible in Samoa.
In a country where the temperature rarely drops below thirty
degrees, they have no need for long sleeves.
I took a sip of my drink and reminded
myself once again that Samoa was not to blame for our family
breakout of impetigo. Matthew had contracted it in New Zealand,
and imported it in with him. Many Samoans had never heard
of it or assumed Cameron had chicken pox and probably blamed
us for failing to keep him quarantined. A lot expressed
concern for the poor boy's condition.
"What is wrong with your little boy?" asked one of many
"He's got impetigo," I replied.
A look of horror spread across the woman's face, "He got
eaten by a tiger?"
It took a few moments to clarify that particular confusion.
I'd had my fears about Samoa from the start but tigers was
not one of them. "Samoa's quite a safe country," said my
laid back GP when I consulted him about travelling with
the kids, "Diarrhoea or impetigo, that's all they're likely
to get there." Unfortunately we got both, and living in
beach falé didn't help Cameron's condition, where
the only available shower source was a cold water pipe or
a bucket of water and there was little escape from the fierce
sun and gritty sand. But Cameron suffered silently, scratched
at his sores and kept himself busy with sand sculptures
because he wasn't allowed to cool down with a swim.
"Hey Kirst, look at this."
Stuart peeled off his top to reveal a new outbreak of sores
under his own arm. "Oh God, I'm not going back to that hospital."
I told him, routing out the emergency antibiotics we had
ordered from the doctor back home. "Do you think we accidentally
booked onto the survival tour instead of the eco one?"
A week later I was queuing again.
This time at the private hospital in Apia, as Cameron's
antibiotics hadn't worked. "I'm not surprised," said Doctor
Adams when I showed him the bottle, "they only gave you
half a course. You should have gone back for the other half."
I kicked myself for not realising. "Take the full course
this time, but his condition should clear up within forty
eight hours." I grabbed the prescription and jumped into
a taxi to the nearest pharmacy. Perhaps the pharmacist on
Savai'i was still waiting for Steve to come back and tell
her how nice she looked. Or perhaps her pregnant colleague
was waiting for another beer. I knew of one pregnant woman
who was about to enjoy a nice cold beer and toast the return
to good health of my family.